One of the first lessons you learn when you're a younger brother is how to ignore the older one. How to ignore being called a dumbass three times a day, how to ignore fists ground incessantly onto the top of your head, ignore ludicrous orders like Climb up to the roof and fix the antennae, bitch, ignore the smelly socks in your lunchbox along with your plastic-wrapped turkey sandwich (which, incidentally, your brother packed for you, along with a juice box and an apple – but you ignore that, too).
So as a younger brother, Sam's had some practice ignoring Dean, and he's been exercising his considerable skills steadily for the past couple weeks or so, ever since they left Oregon. He's been tuning out Dean's snapped comments about Sam's incompetence, his curt replies to the most innocuous of questions, his long, heavy silences that Sam can physically feel, like a pressure in the air around him. Ignores it cause he's knows it's not his fault, and it's not Dean's fault, either.
They've been taking it easy, more or less, because Sam's ribs are still bothering him, and Dean – well, Dean's been a huge asshole lately, but not because he's an asshole – though, yeah, that too – but because he's clearly in a lot of pain. Too much pain. And it's making him cranky as hell, and Sam's the one who gets the brunt of it.
They take an easy salt-and-burn in Idaho, and Dean yells at Sam for using too much rocksalt on the bones.
"That shit is fucking expensive," he barks, and doesn't speak to Sam again until they get dinner, where Dean makes a steady stream of snide comments about how much salt Sam puts on his fries. Sam wants to say, at least I'm eating, because sometimes it seems like the only things Dean puts in his mouth are cigarettes, coffee, and painkillers. But he's too busy trying not to get yelled at to do anything more than make sure there's a steady supply of healthy-ish snack food in the car, because Dean will absentmindedly eat nuts and M&Ms and sometimes potato chips if they're on hand, and it's not ideal, but at least it's food.
In Montana they perform the simplest exorcisms known to man – an outbreak of sleep demons, who nestle inside their skin of choice and just sleep. The people they possess don't wake up till it's all over, and then they just yawn, stretch, mutter about weird dreams, and ask Sam and Dean what they hell they're doing in their house.
That night, Dean needs help getting up the three stairs into the diner where they have dinner, and when Sam slams the Impala's door a little too hard he tells Sam he's "a fucking waste of good space that could be used for someone with half a brain" and expresses his wish that Sam "shove his eyes full of razorblades and fall over backwards onto a shit-covered stake" – which is pretty harsh, even for Dean, who has the good sense to look mollified and gives Sam first shower.
They're doing easy work, but it's still work, involves trekking out to graveyards and shoveling and holding people down… Sam guesses they probably move around more than the average person, but it's not excessive, and he's trying to be careful not to overdo it.
Nevertheless, Sam's noticed things, noticed that Dean stays in bed as long as he can in the mornings, doesn't shower as much 'cause it means standing up for so long, needs more help doing simple things like getting out of the car. Most of all, he's hitting the Vicodin pretty fucking hard whenever he thinks Sam's not looking, and as a consequence is always either too mellow and too zoned out, like a zombie, or he's tension-wire tense and prickly, shoulders clenched against pain he won't admit to.
And besides being a huge jerk, he just seems off, never really smiling, not eating, shows no interest in anything but the hunt: and even with that, it's a flat, dull interest, like he thinks he ought to be interested but he's really just feigning it.
And Sam's good at ignoring his brother, but this, he can't ignore anymore. Doesn't want to.
The last straw comes the day after they take care of a small-scale haunting where Dean gets bounced against the wall a little, nothing major, but it is, and he barely makes it back to the Impala even with Sam's steadying arm holding him up. Sam knows it's not going to be pretty the next morning, and he's right.
He goes out for coffee before his brother wakes up, and comes back to find Dean sitting on the edge of the bed in his boxers and t-shirt, staring at a pair of jeans on his lap like they may as well be Mount Everest, white knuckles clenched in the denim.
He looks up when Sam comes in, circles painted dark under his eyes, and Sam sets the coffee down carefully on the nightstand and sits on the bed across from his brother, knee to knee.
"Dude," Sam says. "We gotta talk about this."
"What?" Dean snaps, grabs his coffee.
"I think that we should go to a doctor," Sam says resolutely. "Just to check you out, man. See if there's anything they can do."
"The fuck are you talking about," Dean mutters, reaches for his cane to get himself to his feet, angles his leg to minimize movement of his hip – but the bed is low, and soft, and Dean's already got sweat misting on his upper lip, and Sam sees the realization in his face that he's not going to be able to make it all the way.
"This," Sam says gently, watching his brother try and settle himself on the bed, pretend like he had just been adjusting position. "This is what I'm talking about."
Dean shakes his head once, like he's going to deny it, but all of a sudden his face just… crumples. He raises an abrupt hand to press down hard over his eyes, visors them from view, and Sam has absolutely no idea what to do, just sits there mutely and listens to his brother's ragged breathing, watches Dean try and get himself under control, because he's trying not to cry and Sam can't remember the last time he saw that. If he's ever seen it.
"Hey," he says helplessly, lump rising in his throat like he might cry himself, "hey."
Dean keeps his head down, and Sam knows Dean's probably cursing him right now, wishing to god he'd just get the fuck out, but tough luck, cause Sam's not going anywhere.
"Hey," Sam says, leaning forward, puts his hand palm-down on the bed next to his brother's good knee, "I know man, I know it's hard, but we just need to go to a doctor, maybe they can put you on some different meds. Suggest something, like exercises or …"
"There's nothing," Dean says, and his voice is steady even though he won't look at his brother. "They're just gonna… there's nothing they can do."
"How do you know until you try?"
"Dean," Sam says, pure frustration. "What's worse, sitting here trying to figure out how you're gonna put on your pants, how you're gonna get up and get through the fucking day, or going to one doctor's appointment, have them poke and prod you for a measly hour, then maybe do something to help? So you don't have to sit here like this?"
"Sam," Dean says, and drops his hand. "I've been to doctors. I spent four fucking months with them. They didn't do shit."
"They did, too," Sam says. "You were fine until that spirit at Claire's. Okay, not fine, but you were getting around a hell of a lot better than you are now. And you were a thousand times better than when I had first picked you up at Bobby's. You don't know how much better. You couldn't drive at all, remember? Took you twenty minutes to get up a staircase. And now I feel like you're back there again, cause I'm sure it hurt before Claire's, but not like this, man, not like this – I can tell. So it's clear that something's changed since you last went to a doctor."
Dean shakes his head. "Not goin'."
"Why?" Sam demands. "You afraid they're gonna do something good for you, and you won't have an excuse to be a total jackass anymore?"
"Fuck you. Seriously. Fuck you."
"Why? Why won't you go?" Sam knows he's yelling, but he can't help it. "What's scaring you? What are you afraid of? What the fuck are you so afraid of, Dean?"
"I'm afraid of being stuck in a goddamn wheelchair for the rest of my fucking life!" Dean shouts back. "Fuck, Sam, I don't want any more fucking surgery, don't want them to tell me to stay in bed all day and not move and not breathe and not talk and fuck, it's just gonna be bad news, and maybe I don't want to know."
"Dean," Sam says. "Dean. Could it be worse than this?"
"There's things worse than pain," Dean says grimly, and Sam throws his hands up in the air.
"Fine," he says. "Fine, you fucking drama queen. Just – just quit bein' such a douchebag. You yell at me all the time, and I fucking hate it. If you wanna hurt yourself, that's your business, but don't make me suffer, too."
"Fine," Dean says.
They sit in silence for a moment, Sam fuming and Dean just looking exhausted.
"You hungry?" Sam asks, and he can't help that it sounds like a threat.
"You need to eat," Sam says menacingly, and Dean is silent.
Great. Don't throw me any frickin' bones here. They sit, Dean staring at the ground, Sam staring at Dean, waiting for him to talk, cause, yeah, his fucking move.
"What I need," Dean says finally, "is a cigarette. I really, really need a cigarette. And I need to get these fucking jeans on. And I need this fucking vicodin to kick in, now, because I want to kill something, I swear to god, I wanna kill something, and you're always the closest target and I'm sorry, I'm sorry I've been a dick."
"Oh," Sam says taken aback. "It's all right. Dude, I'm just worried about you."
Dean pulls in a shaky breath, lets it out.
"I'm gonna get some water, go to the bathroom, wash up," Sam says. "Then we'll get breakfast, cause you really do have to eat something, you do, you can't just smoke your meals."
Sam heads into the bathroom, closes the door, leans on the sink and stares at himself in the mirror. He looks almost as bad as Dean, tired, lines furrowing his forehead, his skin dry and pale.
Jesus motherfucking christ. He's sick of this shit. This constant worry about his brother, always watching Dean and wondering how Dean's doing, if he's all right, if he's in pain, if he needs to sit down or take his meds or have a cup of coffee, if his hands are shaking cause he needs a cigarette or if it's cause he's nervous or cause his leg hurts, if he's coughing cause he swallowed something wrong or cause he's got emphysema, if he's grimacing because of a bad joke or did Sam jostle his chair too hard, Dean Dean Dean Dean Dean all the fucking time and Sam is fucking sick of it.
Sam's got problems too, fuck, does he have problems. His girlfriend is dead and his whole life is torn to shreds, burned on a ceiling, everything he wanted lost and everything he didn't want shoved back into his hands like an anvil that he's trying desperately not to drop. He doesn't need his worries and all his brother's worries at the same time. It's just too much.
He takes a deep, steadying breath, and goddammit, even now he's wondering how Dean's doing out there, if he's managed to get himself to his feet, get his jeans on, if he's outside smoking a cigarette or still sitting on the motel bed staring at his hands.
And all the fight goes out of him, just like that, because Dean has spent his whole life worrying about Sam, still worries about Sam, even when he's being an asshole. And maybe this is just how it is. Carrying each other's burdens, cause no one else is gonna fucking do it for them, that's for damn sure.
Sam rinses his face, drinks from the faucet, one hand bracing his still-twingeing ribs, and heads back out into the motel room.
Dean's still sitting on the bed, but his jeans are on and he's buttoning up a red shirt over his grey tee, face pale, breath coming a little faster than usual, like getting those jeans on had been a mile-run.
"Breakfast?" Sam asks.
"Okay," Dean says. Adjusts himself on the bed a little, winces. "And… also okay about the other thing."
"What? Okay about what?"
"The doctor thing."
Sam feels his mouth drop. "You'll go?"
"Yeah," Dean says.
"Good," Sam says, can't help but beam. "Good!"
Dean nods, doesn't look at him, finishes buttoning his shirt.
Sam moves to put his jacket on and thinks that he will never, never, never understand how his brother's brain works. Shouting one minute, quiet and docile the next. Maybe Dean just needs to yell about something before he agrees to it; maybe getting angry is the only way he can think through anything. Christ.
Dean reaches for his crutches, fiddles with them for a moment before starting to push himself to his feet, breath coming too quick as he tries to maneuver himself upright, Sam trying not to hover but failing. His cane's been hanging out in the back of the Impala ever since Oregon, and neither of them have mentioned it, but it's just one more thing that Sam's been keeping an eye on.
Dean shakes a cigarette from his pack as soon as he's settled in the car, pats his pockets for his lighter.
"Can we stop at the gas station before breakfast? This is my last cigarette."
"The diner's right down the road," Sam says. "Let's just go afterwards."
"Can't we just go now?"
"I'm starving, dude."
"So fucking starve," Dean snaps, then seems to check himself, shakes his head, pinches the bridge of his nose. "You're right. I'm an ass."
The diner is crowded, noisy, and Sam winces a little. He's been getting headaches lately, especially after particularly bad nightmares, like the one last night. This one was different than normal, wasn't The One About Jess, but it was no less disturbing. A woman, banging on a window, screaming, and god, it was so real, he can feel the vise around his head tighten just thinking about it.
The waitress sits them in a booth close to the door, and Sam watches Dean watch through the window as a pretty young woman lights a cigarette by a snowbank outside.
Dean shifts in his seat, clears his throat.
"You lookin' at the girl, or the cigarette?" Sam asks, and Dean attempts a grin.
"So, I'll call your records, get them forwarded to the clinic here," Sam says, down to business. "Make an appointment as soon as possible."
"I can do it," Dean says in mild irritation.
Sam nods, doesn't want to say But you won't, but, "But you won't."
Dean quirks a smile. "Fine. You do it."
"I will," Sam says, pulls a notebook out from his pocket to make an exaggerated note of it.
"Christ," Dean says. "Gimme those newspapers, will you?"
Sam digs slowly into his laptop bag, next to him on the booth, hands Dean the papers they've been looking through for new cases, but he doesn't take out his computer.
"Dean," Sam says, and tries, for the fourth time that week: "Maybe we should take a break. Hang out for a while. Rest."
"A break?" Dean says, sweeping his hand over the newspapers, already littered with red pen and scribbled notes. "Look at this shit, Sam. I don't see evil taking any breaks."
"Yeah, well, evil can walk."
"Not evil worms," Dean says.
"Are you comparing yourself to an evil worm?"
Dean's spared from answering as a waitress sweeps over to their table. "How're you guys doing this morning?"
"We're doing all right," Dean says, smiles up at her, and it's a testament to how much time they spend together that Sam can pinpoint the exact moment that Dean's painkillers kick in. "How are you?"
"Can't complain," she says, tugging a pencil out from behind her ear. "Well, I could, but that's what therapy's for, right?"
Sam and Dean laugh with her, awkwardly, and she says, "What can I get you this morning?"
"I'll have the blueberry shortstack with a side of fruit and a side of bacon, please," Sam says. "And a cup of coffee."
"And for you?" the waitress asks, turns to Dean.
"Just toast and coffee, thanks."
The waitress nods, makes a note, swishes away again.
"You better put a fuck-ton of butter on that toast," Sam says. "Seriously, man, you need to eat more. I know you're proud of your cheekbones, but this is going beyond."
"I'm just not hungry," Dean says defensively. "I had a huge dinner last night."
"No, you didn't. You ate half a can of Chef Boyardee."
Sam makes a mental note to ask the doctor about this, too.
Dean drums on the tabletop a little, and Sam's suddenly reminded of his nightmare, of the woman banging on the glass, the terrified expression on her face. A welcome reprieve from The One About Jess, but disturbing, nonetheless.
He flips his notebook open to where it says Call Doctor Have Records Transferred, starts doodling idly, pen taking his hand. Usually he doodles faces, sad-eyed big-nosed faces, but now he finds himself sketching a tree, going over the thin lines until the outline's thick and crisp. He finishes and without thinking, starts another one, finds himself drawing the same thing. He thinks it might have been part of his dream, but he can't quite remember.
"That's kinda cool," Dean says, watching. "What is that?"
"I don't know," Sam says, furrows his brow. "Looks kind of familiar, though, doesn't it?"
Dean shrugs, glances back out the window.
The rest of their breakfast is quiet, Dean dunking his toast in coffee till it's practically liquid itself, like maybe chewing is too much work. He gets down three of the four pieces of toast and four cups of coffee as Sam finishes his shortstack and heads to the counter to pay.
Sam comes back, tucking his wallet into the back pocket of his jeans, finds Dean sitting on the edge of the booth with his legs in the aisle, one hand planted on the table.
"Uh," Dean says, shamefaced, and Sam gets a hand under his elbow, pulls him to his feet, reaches down and snags his crutches as Dean leans against the table, glancing around nervously like any moment someone is going to pop out of the woodwork and deliver a musical rendition of "You Big Fucking Pussy, Can't You Do it Yourself?"
They stop at the gas station and Sam goes in to buy Dean his cigarettes, which makes him feel like he's been corrupted, somehow, so he only buys one pack instead of the requested two, to show that he doesn't approve.
"Fuck you," Dean says, thumping the pack viciously against his palm, tearing the cellophane off and shoving a cigarette in his mouth in a violent motion that has Sam pressing himself against the drivers seat, just in case. "The fuck do you think you are, a walking talking pack of nicorette gum?"
"You have to cut back," Sam says, like he says every day.
"Yeah, well, I haven't yet, so I'm gonna need another pack of cigarettes at around," he checks his watch, "five o'clock today, and you're gonna go out and get them."
"I am not," Sam says, but at four o'clock Dean throws the empty pack at him and threatens to take the Impala and go himself, despite the fact that it takes him three tries to get up off the bed and start for the keys on the dresser. So Sam goes, buys the goddamn cigarettes, takes a long fucking time to do it cause he's not a servant, for chrissakes, chucks them at Dean's head and nearly gets him in the eye. Serves him goddamn right.
Dean's got an appointment at the local hospital for eleven the next morning, and they just kind of laze around the motel all day, nothing to do but bicker, so they don't talk much. Sam half-heartedly cleans the guns and flips through daytime T.V., while Dean parks himself in the armchair next to the open window, chain-smokes steadily and stares out into the parking lot. Sam tries bitching about the cold air, but it isn't very satisfying, so he shuts up and disables the fire alarm instead.
"You realize this makes you an enabler, right?" Dean asks, but he closes the window and makes his way over to the bed, grunts his way into a comfortable position.
"Disabler," Sam says, holding up the plastic pieces of the alarm, and that gets a grin from his brother.
Sam orders a pizza and is pleased to see that Dean eats three slices of meatlovers extracheese, though it takes him awhile and he doesn't seem to really enjoy it.
Sam polishes off the rest of the pizza and starts working through a six-pack of beer, and before he knows it, he's on his way to drunk, more or less by accident – which, come to think of it, has been happening kind of a lot, lately. Dean drinks one beer slowly, which is probably a good thing, because he's pretty much doped to the gills already, speech a little slurred, half-smile hovering behind his cigarette.
"We havin' a party?" he asks as Sam pulls out the Jack.
Sam shrugs heavily. "May's well."
"Yeah? Didn't know we had anything to celebrate."
Sam just eyes him balefully and pours himself a drink, retreats to the table and pretends to do research, really just looks halfheartedly at a couple porn sites Dean's bookmarked, and then spends an inordinate amount of time on the Stanford website, trawling through the different departments, checking out the syllabi of the classes he would have been taking. Doesn't know why he's doing this to himself but doesn't stop.
They go to sleep early, Dean knocked out from the heavy load of painkillers he's been dosing himself with all day, Sam knocked out cause he's stressed, drunk, and unhappy, really just wants to be unconscious for awhile.
But he doesn't find any peace in his dreams, only a woman's terrified face, palms beating at the glass of her bedroom window, the scent of smoke on the breeze, fear filling his whole body like a white-hot electrical charge till he wakes up, gasping for air.
"You okay?" Dean asks, flipping on the light and looking at Sam with a bleary grimace, not really awake.
"Yeah," Sam says, holds a hand to his chest, heart thumping through his body like it's trying to break free of his aching ribs. "Go back to sleep."
Dean complies, changes position with a strange, whimpered groan, and is asleep again in minutes.
Sam lies back down, stares up into the dark, doesn't want to close his eyes again, doesn't want to get back there, but he's so tired…
The last thing he thinks before he falls asleep is, Oh. That tree.
To be continued…